Director Mary Harron Reflects On Buster Keaton’s Work In ‘The Cameraman’

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Buster Keaton in the 1928 silent film "The Cameraman."

While on a trip to Paris when she was 14 years old, film director and writer Mary Harron was taken to a movie theater to see “The Cameraman,” the 1928 silent film starring Buster Keaton.

“It was the first full-length Buster Keaton movie that I saw and I recall the effect it had on me,” Harron said in a recent phone interview. “I do love Buster Keaton and I was so excited to see the film. It felt very magical to me and it was a beautiful print.”

Harron, a native Canadian who studied at Oxford University and, as a rock journalist in the late 1970s, helped start Punk Magazine, began her career in film in the U.K. where she directed shorts and documentaries for the BBC. Her first feature film came in 1996 with “I Shot Andy Warhol,” followed by “America Psycho” in 2000, “The Notorious Bettie Page” in 2006 and “The Moth Diaries” in 2011. Her most recent film, “Charlie Says” debuted at the Venice Film Festival in 2018. She has also directed for television, including all six episodes of the Netflix series “Alias Grace” which is based on the Margaret Atwood novel.

Harron’s childhood memories of Keaton’s signature pratfalls and comic timing in “The Cameraman” are among the reasons she selected it as the next offering in “Here Comes the Cinema!,” Sag Harbor Cinema’s (SHC) winter film series. The film will be screened at Bay Street Theater in Sag Harbor at 2 p.m. on February 2, followed by a conversation with Harron and SHC’s artistic director Giulia D’Agnolo Vallan.

Director Mary Harron.

Though Harron doesn’t feel “The Cameraman” is Keaton’s greatest film, she finds there is still much in it for audiences to love and appreciate, even more than 90 years after its initial release. Interestingly, the film was nearly lost before a print of it was discovered in 1968, and in 1991, a much better print of the film was found, ensuring that it would live on in film history.

“It’s a wonderful snapshot of those early filmmaking days and it has great set pieces,” said Harron. “The whole scene of the tong wars in Chinatown felt so visceral and immediate. Keaton’s right in the midst in the action.

“You usually don’t experience so immediate a feeling with a silent movie,” she continued “but his films are magical, poetic and comic.”

Though perhaps not universally beloved by critics, “The Cameraman” was, nonetheless, a box office success. It was also one of Keaton’s own favorites and in terms of physical comedy, he was in his prime in the film — though ironically, Keaton is uncredited and Edward Sedgwick is named as the director of “The Cameraman.”

When asked how films from that era by talents like Keaton affected her as a filmmaker, Harron said, “When I was growing up and became an adult, I fell in love with silent film. There’s something very intense and pure about them … I admire people who are great at physical comedy — it’s one of the very hardest things to do.”

Harron noted that when she recently re-watched “The Cameraman,” she caught things in the film that she had either missed as a 14-year-old or simply forgotten. Primarily, that a whole Chinatown scene in the film was shot, not on location in New York City, but rather on elaborate sets.

Buster Keaton with Marceline Day in “The Cameraman.”

“They did film in the actual Yankee stadium and Buster Keaton acts out a whole baseball game there on his own,” she added.

The plot of “The Cameraman” follows Keaton as he buys a movie camera and sets out to document the news of the day in an effort to win over Sally (Marceline Day), an attractive secretary who works in the MGM Newsreels department. This, naturally, puts him in a lot of precarious and dangerous situations that require a great deal of physicality, which he pulls of masterfully.

While “The Cameraman” was a hit with movie goers, Keaton’s relationship with MGM under producer Irving Thalberg was not. A year after signing with MGM, Keaton lost creative control of his work. He eventually called his deal with the studio “the worst mistake of my career.”

The studio contract system of early Hollywood often resulted in unhappy partnerships between producers and talent, and while these days, studios don’t “own” directors and actors like they once did, Harron concedes there is always some tension between producers and creatives.

“I’m interested in Keaton’s career as a paradigm of Hollywood — the good and bad — so that people can create these things but they are destroyed when they lose control. There’s an interesting documentary Peter Bogdanovich did of Keaton’s movies,” said Harron, referring to the 2018 film “The Great Buster: A Celebration.” “Apparently, Charlie Chaplin warned him not to let go of control of his work. It helped destroy him as an artist and for years he couldn’t get back. Orson Welles had a similar story.”

It’s true that Keaton’s career did go into a steep decline after the MGM deal with the loss of his artistic independence, and in the years that followed, his marriage failed and he descended into alcoholism. But like many Hollywood endings, Keaton had a second act and in the 1940s, he made a comeback by reigniting his career as a comedic performer and in 1959, received an honorary Academy Award.

“One thing that kind of mitigated the darkness was he did live long enough to be celebrated,” said Harron. “In Europe, his work had been rediscovered and admired. When the talkies came in, I’m sure he thought his work was forgotten.”

Buster Keaton died of lung cancer in 1966 at the age of 70, and while it’s hard to say if, when today’s media-savvy youth watch his films, they see them as anything other than simplistically silly, Harron feels talents like Buster Keaton have much to teach this new generation about the art of filmmaking.

“One of the greatest things about Keaton is that all his tricks are for real, like Jackie Chan who’s the great inheritor,” Harron said. “It’s something unmistakable. You can also see Keaton’s influence on Wes Anderson — his choreography and symmetrical framing.

“It’s visual storytelling and you can always learn from that,” she said.

Buster Keaton’s 1928 silent film “The Cameraman” will be screened on Sunday, February 2, at 2 p.m. at Bay Street Theater in Sag Harbor as part of “Here Comes the Cinema!” the Sag Harbor Cinema’s winter film series. A conversation with Mary Harron and Giulia D’Agnolo Vallan follows. Admission is $15 (children under 14 free). For tickets, visit sagharborcinema.org. Tickets are also available at the door.

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